The soul of Hong Kong: its intangible cultural heritage

How the city's culinary, religious and artistic traditions are vital to its DNA.

An actor rehearses a traditional ribbon dance before a Cantonese opera performance.
Photograph by Laurel Chor

Hong Kong has its own visual fingerprint. With its shimmering buildings stretching to the sky, shoulder to shoulder along the famous harborfront, it’s instantly recognizable. The neon signs that flank the city’s colorful streets are unmistakable, as are the brightly lit, red-and-green dai pai dong street stalls serving Hong Kong’s signature no-frill dishes.

These are the things that define Hong Kong in two-dimensional depictions. But Hong Kong isn’t a place where you go to simply sightsee. Hong Kong is a feeling to be experienced by all senses, a stimulant that courses through your veins and feeds your soul.

For me, Hong Kong is the sweet, milky taste of an egg tart fresh out of the oven, steam still rising from the golden pastry as I sink my teeth into it. It’s the smell of joss paper burning, the smoke wafting through the air as I step over the threshold of a dimly lit temple. It’s the sound of a dozen beating drums and the piercing rallying cries of rowers as they race towards the finish line during the Dragon Boat Festival. It’s the sense of serenity as I watch skilled Tai Chi practitioners move as gingerly as the rising sun behind them, nestled in a green oasis in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

These are the intangible things that make Hong Kong home to me, which make visitors come back for more, time after time. So important are these aspects of Hong Kong that there is actually an official list of the city’s “intangible cultural heritage”, which the government has vowed to preserve and promote.

Hong Kong’s buildings are designed to withstand the test of time, but the preservation of the city’s culture is not as simple. This cosmopolitan city runs at a dizzyingly fast pace, in contrast to the delicate concentration needed to learn and craft many of the traditions rooted in centuries of history. Without a concerted, continuous effort to keep Hong Kong’s intangible heritage alive, we could lose the city as we know it.

A woman works on a traditional Chinese wedding dress in Mong Kok.
A woman works on a traditional Chinese wedding dress in Mong Kok.
Photograph by Laurel Chor

As a National Geographic Explorer, I tell stories as a way of preserving people, times and spaces. My hope is that my words and photographs can evoke just a slice of what I feel when I’m in Hong Kong. The moment I sip a hot cup of milk tea, hear the clashing cymbals of a lion dance, or slip into a cheongsam... I am home – no matter how long I’ve been away. All these things exist thanks to the dedicated hands of the countless chefs, artists and craftspeople of Hong Kong, and it’s what I am most eager to share with friends who have come to visit.

The cement that keeps Hong Kong’s bricks together are its people: it’s the knowledge they have passed on for decades, the songs and dance they have enjoyed for generations, and the religious rituals they have been performing for centuries. But equally important are the people who eat, listen, watch and enjoy what they do.

Join me in experiencing Hong Kong in its full sensory glory as we continue our Intangible Cultural Heritage journey at the I See Hong Kong content hub.